Out with the old, in with the (kinda) new. That’s the phrase that’s guiding the LA Kings as this, their most disastrous season in decades, slowly sinks into the sea. They’re currently 21-34-5, and who’s gone?
Their scrappy fourth-liner, Kyle Clifford. A fan favorite, Clifford played in LA since 2010-11, winning the Stanley Cup twice. He’s in Toronto now, nearby his home of Ayr, probably enjoying renewed media attention and hoping against hope to get some decent playing time in.
Remember one thing: before last year, his presence wouldn’t have been required in a playoff lineup, because in the post-season, the game turned finesse. The rough-tough St. Louis Blues with their circa-2005 style of play changed that as they won the Stanley Cup last spring. It’s a new game in the playoffs, now, and more like old-school hockey than for a long while.
But even to say that is not quite fair, because Clifford proved this season that he can play hockey. Fourteen points in 53 games translates to close to 25 over the season. Not meathead numbers, by the former scale. He has played eight games with the Leafs thus far, scoring a goal and adding an assist. His $800,000 a year deal is up at the end of this year.
Who else is gone? Their never-quite-panned-out goalie, Jack Campbell. “Soupy,” as his fellow players call him, was drafted in 2010, right here in Los Angeles. At the time, he was #11 pick, going to Dallas. He was the next great thing—tall and lanky, the wave of goaltending’s future. The Stars wasted him, allowing him just one NHL game over five seasons, in 2013-14. He lost that one, letting in six goals. He was traded to the Kings a couple of years later, after even seeing some time in the ECHL.
For the Kings, he was supposed to be the next one, the successor to Jonathan Quick. It looked like that might happen for a while, especially as Quick endured some injuries over the past couple of years, but again, limited playing time didn’t allow for top-level development. Campbell played one game in 2016-17, and five in 2017-18.
Last year, he finally was utilized, seeing his place in 31 NHL games with the Kings. Losing record, though, at 10-14-1 and a GAA of 2.30. That was enough to earn him a permanent spot on the big club’s roster this year, where he found himself in 20 games, going 8-10-2. Disappointing, maybe. But what do you expect with a team in front of you that never scores goals?
The Kings are 30th in the league in that department, with 148 (coming into the Thursday affair with Florida in town). Campbell meanwhile did a decent job of keeping the puck out of his net, registering a 2.85 GAA and .900 save percentage.
You need perspective on that, right? His counterpart, Jonathan Quick, put up these numbers: 12-22-3 with a GAA of 2.99 and a save percentage of .897. Campbell, in other words, was statistically better.
Anyway, Campbell is probably glad to have traded a high temp of 78 degrees tomorrow for one of 23, because he’s heating up Toronto all by himself. His trade conditions had him gaining more back for the Kings if he won six games. He’s already won three (of four), with a 2.40 and .919. Better on a better team? Or just better than those on the western edges of the country thought he was? He probably doesn’t care which, because if he keeps this up, he’ll be supplementing his meagre $675, 000 salary this year with such lines: “Hi, I’m Soupy Campbell coming to you from Honda of Durham . . . .” Sometimes you gotta get out of Hollywood to make yourself a star.
Don’t feel too bad for him, though, even if the commercials never come. He’s on $1,650,000 for the two years following this one. Toronto was thinking ahead, it appears, when they grabbed him in trade. Their regular guy, and you know already that’s Andersen, is making $5 million a year, but that ends after next season.
What Campbell will have discovered already is that the Leafs get covered like no other team, and the media (one presumes, because of the fans and what they demand) loves a controversy. This week, after Andersen lost two games by 5-2 scores, they were asking whether Campbell should start the next game. When Andersen did, and won, versus the Penguins, they were calling it a “statement game.” Every play is dissected. Every game treated like the last one the team will ever play.
Will that drive the mild-mannered netminder crazy? Ask yourself that when you consider the fact that the team has never won the Stanley Cup when there were more than six teams in the league.
But the Kings. Old makes room for young, and Gabe Vilardi found himself in the lineup for the first time on Thursday night. He broke his NHL scoreless streak of 1:26 when he scored the first goal of the game, and first of his career since this was his debut game. It was a floater from the mid-slot, but that’s fine. There will be prettier ones. He had been on the ice all of ten seconds.
“I came on the ice . . . I took it and the D kind of was backed off a bit, and I had some space, and I just shot it, and it went in.”
He added: “It’s pretty exciting. I definitely wasn’t expecting to score on the first shift, nobody expects to score on the first shift. It was definitely cool.”
Vilardi’s parents were in the building, since he had known since yesterday that he was going to play. That had produced some anxiety. He told us after the game, “I got about two hours of sleep last night. I was so nervous.” He said that he tried everything to relax him since he was told he’d play, including watching movies. The choice? Back to the Future III.
His summation? “I’m kind of happy it’s over with now so I can just focus on playing hockey.”
He also registered a very pretty assist on LA’s fourth tally, late in the second period. There was some pass-pass-pass around the zone, and he found himself first at the goal line, then behind the net. The puck came to him, and he flipped a backhand to the front of the net, right onto the stick of Martin Frk (nickname suggestion: “vowels”), who quickly put it up and over Sergei Bobrovsky.
In between, Vilardi found himself starting a power play as the center. Pretty good for his first game, and his numbers were huge. He was 10 of 13 as the third period was in its early stages. Better even at the end.
He talked about this after. “I’m a centerman, right? I’ve got to win draws. That’s part of my job. I want to be around 55 percent, but at least near 50.” In fact, he was 13-3, or 81 percent.
Eighty-one percent!! What a start! Kind of reminds me of another Kings player, one Trevor Lewis, a first-rounder who still plays with the team, albeit in an underutilized role. On this note, Lewis was in the lineup on this night, as he has been for 664 prior games. He played 9:33 and was 1-1 in the circle.
Coach McLellan was happy with the young player’s start, as well. “To have him play tonight, everybody’s excited for him. To have him score eight or ten seconds in was remarkable, and it affected the bench. The enthusiasm was contagious.” He said further, “Great for the kid. I was really happy for him.”
He summarized, “He played like a calm player.” He mentioned Valardi’s excellent record at winning draws, too. “Gabe had purpose in all of his shifts.”
The coach also noted that a second debut was made on this night, by Tim Schaller. He came from Vancouver in the Toffoli deal. He was on the fourth line with Amadio at center and Lewis on right wing. He played 9:24 and won two faceoffs.
The Kings play a number of games at home in the next couple of weeks. The next two are Saturday and Sunday.